Only with fermentation comes civilisation

There’s a heck of a lot of ‘fuss’ in the modern beer world.

From the excitement generated by the release of a hazy hop-bomb from a brewery you’ve only recently discovered, to the fervour of the beer chasers stepping over each other to get hold of a can (and it does have to be a can nowadays…), you could be forgiven for wondering whether we’re perhaps blowing things a little out of proportion. It’s just a drink after all; it’s only about 5% off being a straight glass of water. But the more that’s discovered about beer – the world’s most popular alcoholic drink – the more its pivotal role in the development of the human story becomes apparent. And two things I’ve been reading this week have thrown that into stark relief yet again.

Firstly, the cover of this month’s National Geographic Magazine features a frothy glass of Bavaria’s best emblazoned with the words ‘The Birth of Booze: Our 9000-year love affair with alcohol’. Inside, Andrew Curry’s fascinating article makes the case that alcoholic beverages, including beer, have been instrumental in shaping human culture from earliest times, and have contributed to the development of, amongst other things, language, religion and the arts.

The earliest indication of beer brewing so far discovered dates back at least 7000 years (and possibly further), with evidence of corn beer being brewed across the Americas and sorghum brewing in parts of Africa. Apparently, by 3150BC, Ancient Egyptians were brewing beer on an almost industrial scale. In response to this, the theory put forward by bio-molecular archaeologist, Patrick McGovern (and others), is that the desire to cultivate plants in order to make alcoholic drinks was one of the key reasons (if not the key reason) why hunter-gatherers began to settle in one place and create what we now term (although not entirely unproblematically) civilisation. And once settled in communities, many peoples drank beer in vast quantities, not simply because it was pleasant, but also because it was much cleaner than water and contained certain nutrients (that we now know to include B vitamins and folic acid), causing it to function as both refreshment and a kind of ‘liquid bread’. And, of course, if nutrition improves, growth – both physical and mental – is enhanced, so who knows what part beer may then have played in the development of culture and language?

Secondly, I’ve started reading Judith Bennett’s well-researched and absorbing book, Ale, Beer and Brewsters in England: Women’s Work in a Changing World, 1300-1600. In it, Bennett examines the reasons behind the handover of brewing as an occupation from women (most ale drunk in England before 1350 was brewed by women) to men (by 1600 most brewers were male). She concludes that although this was a dramatic change, it was equally part of a continuity in the nature of women’s work – as brewing became a more prestigious occupation, women continued to carry out the low-paid, low-status work they had always done.

This got me thinking about more recent changes in the brewing world. In particular, I wonder how much impact newer micro- or ‘craft’ brewers, who may arrive at brewing via less conventional brewing routes, driven perhaps by novel priorities and values, will have on the profession more widely. Ultimately, could the demographics of the population of brewers shift, or is the way we think about the nature of brewing as an occupation likely to change? As with many aspects of the contemporary beer scene, I expect the answer will be informed by both tradition and innovation.

So, it would seem that all that ‘fuss’ about beer may well be justified – that fluid in your best glassware may well be part of the reason you and I can communicate. And, even if it’s not, every brew coming out of Verdant Brewing at the moment is absolutely ruddy spectacular.

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